The Theosophical Forum April 1940

IS THERE AN "UNCONSCIOUS? (1) Alan W. Watts

When we say that the chief contribution of modern psychology to human knowledge is the concept of the unconscious mind, we have to be careful of our terms. For the idea of the Unconscious does not belong by any means to all modern psychology, and those schools to which it does belong have somewhat different views on the subject. The concept is associated principally with the names of Freud, Jung and Adler, but there is no one name which covers their three schools. Freud's system is psycho-analysis; Jung's is analytical psychology; Adler's is individual psychology. There is no real reason, however, why they should not all be called psycho-analysis, because if, as is frequently done, we group them under the name "modern psychology" we thereby group them with such important systems as Gestalt Psychology in which the concept of the Unconscious plays no part. Popularly it is believed that psycho-analysis teaches that man has an unconscious mind; this is not strictly true, for the Unconscious is not to be understood as an entity or mental organism having definite location and identity. There is no actual division between the Unconscious and the rest of the human organism, for it bears somewhat the same relation to the mind as the glands, liver, kidneys, etc., bear to the body: they are integral parts of the body, but we are not ordinarily conscious of them. The only difference is that the Unconscious has no specific boundaries. It consists rather of the condition of being unaware of certain desires, impulses, tendencies, reactions and phantasies in our mental and emotional make-up. It has its physical parallel in the condition of being unaware of various bodily organs and processes.

There appears, however, to be little or no mention of the Unconscious in the world's religious, mystical and occult philosophy. Indeed, to many students of these matters the idea is distasteful, and Freud, the father of psycho-analysis, has never been forgiven for regarding religion as a neurosis. In fact, the majority of religious people, whether of orthodox or heterodox persuasion, regard psycho-analysis in all its forms as an upstart science whose avowed object is to "debunk" all the noble impulses of humanity by ascribing them to repressed sexuality. Much of the contempt in which psycho-analysis is held is well deserved, but this should not blind us to a certain amount of gold among the dross. The trouble with this new science is not so much psycho-analysis as psycho-analysts. We might mention the professor in charge of a certain well-known clinic who devotes his life to the study of ink-blots. The patient is made to drop a blot of ink on a piece of paper and is suddenly asked what he thinks it looks like. Being rather puzzled and humorous the patient usually grins and says something like, "Oh, it might be an elephant with warts," whereat the professor assumes a far-away expression and murmurs, "Very significant. Most interesting. An elephant, yes. With warts. Exceedingly interesting." This case is not unusual, for the strange ways of psycho-analysts and psychiatrists would fill many volumes. I have heard fully qualified M. D.s discuss the case of a small boy whose propensity to bed-wetting was undoubtedly due to his unconscious identification of himself with Jupiter Pluvius. Still more significant are the gatherings of doctors and patients for summer schools where people take you by the hand, look into your eyes and ask you whether you are an extravert or an introvert. Indeed, such forms of psychology have swiftly acquired all the symptoms of crank religions. But just as there are half-wits and charlatans as well as true students in mysticism and occultism, psychology also has its heights and depths, both as to its ideas and its practitioners. There are, too, the same internal conflicts, the same personal idolatry, but one could hardly expect otherwise and the mutual contempt of religion and psychology is but "the pot calling the kettle black."

In spite of all, however, psycho-analysis has a definite and valuable contribution for students of religion in our time. I say "in our time" because psycho-analysis is essentially a modern remedy for a modern ill; it exists for that period in human history for which the Unconscious is a problem, and a problem it has been since man began to imagine that all his difficulties of soul and circumstance could be solved by the unaided power of human reason. The ancient paths of mysticism and occultism resolved the problem of the Unconscious from the very beginning, even before it became a problem, for their first requirement was that man should know himself. Whereat he very quickly found that the huge, brute forces of Nature had their counterparts in his soul, that his being was not a simple unit but a pantheon of gods and demons. In fact, all the deities of the ancient theologies were known to the initiated as the inhabitants not of Olympus but of the human soul. They were not mere products of man's imagination any more than his heart, lungs and stomach are products of his imagination. On the contrary, they were very real forces belonging both to Nature, the macrocosm, and man, the microcosm. Occultism was thus the art of living with one's gods and demons, and you had to know how to deal with them in yourself before you could deal with them in the universe. The ancients understood the laws which man must follow in order to live with them, how by love the gods would become your friends and the demons your servants. In every initiation rite it was necessary to pass through that valley of the shadow where the neophyte comes face to face with the "Dweller on the Threshold" and all the most terrible powers of the psyche. But the rite could only be successful if he faced them with love, recognising them as manifestations of the same Divinity which was his own true Self. By this love he broke their spell and became a true initiate.

But man became over rational and forgot the gods and demons, relegating them to the realm of outworn superstitions. He looked for them in the skies and found only infinite spaces, dead rocks and orbs of burning gas. He looked for them in thunder and wind and found only unintelligent forces of atmosphere. He looked for them in woods and caverns and found only scuttling animals, creaking branches, shadows and draughts. He thought that the gods were dead, but in fact they became much more alive and dangerous because they were able to work unrecognised. For whereas the old occultists began with the principle "know thyself," the rationalists began with "rule thyself." They chose what they considered to be a reasonable pattern of character and strove to impose it on their lives without any preliminary exploration. They forgot that it is impossible for man to behave like a sage until he has first come to terms with his inner pantheon; as a result he could only achieve a poor imitation of the sage's behavior because he had not done the necessary groundwork. For this reason the rationalist, puritanic mind is a veneer about a muck-heap, an attempt to copy greatness by wearing its clothes.

But when psychologists began to have the idea of the Unconscious this was simply man's fumbling rediscovery of the lost gods and demons. Naturally experienced occultists of both East and West were inclined to smile, for to them this New Force called the Unconscious had never existed as such. And when people started talking about the Unconscious as if it were just a repository of repressed sexuality, the occultists laughed outright, knowing that it contained far more powerful divinities than Libido, who was just a little imp dancing upon the surface. It must have seemed funnier still to hear the Unconscious discussed as if it were a sort of individual with secret, dark designs and an unfortunate habit of wanting and thinking in direct opposition to the conscious. For the Unconscious is not an individual; it is simply that about himself which man does not know. As such it is a purely relative term, because some people know more about themselves than others. Symbolically it may be represented as an individual, for in dreams the unknown aspect of men presents itself as a woman and vice versa with women. But actually when it is said that the Unconscious does this or that, it means that certain particular aspects of your internal universe are on the move without your conscious knowledge.

The concept of the Unconscious is nevertheless important to modern students of religion and occultism in that it is a reminder of the forgotten gods and of the place where they are to be found. Too many would-be mystics and occultists try to follow the rationalist technique of imposing a discipline upon themselves without first understanding the nature of the thing to be disciplined. You have to come to terms with the gods before you can ignore them, and those who jump straight from ordinary ways of living into the complex disciplines of occultism are inviting trouble. For until those terms have been made, the gods rule us although we have a way of persuading ourselves that their often unreasonable dictates are our own free and considered choice. Thus imitation of the sage is often a device put up by the demons for our own destruction, for modern man simply does not realise that until he has been through the valley of the shadow his life is not his own. Until he looks within himself, seeks out his hidden pantheon and overcomes it by love (or what psychologists call "acceptance"), he remains its unwitting tool. In all the old philosophies Yoga, Buddhism, the Greek Mysteries, the Egyptian Mysteries this exploring of the unknown self was the essential first step and now the same thing is attempted by the psycho-analyst, using a different technique and terminology. That there are failures and mistakes is only to be expected, for here are men trying to work out the divine science on their own with little recourse to the experience of the ages, though to this there are a few notable exceptions. And though students of religion may be offended when religion is ascribed to repressed sexuality, it must be remembered that in many cases this may actually be true and that psychologists have had insufficient opportunities to study that comparatively rare phenomenon the genuine mystic or occultist. For what would such a person want with psycho-analysis? The warning to the beginner, however, still stands, for unless you really know yourself how can you say that your apparently noble aspirations are what they seem to be? Thoughts are often wolves in sheeps" clothing.

Then is the first step on the path a visit to a psycho-analyst? Unfortunately the matter is not quite so easy. If you can find a competent analyst, perhaps, but the profession of analyst attracts many who need their own medicine more than any of their patients. The reason is that psycho-analysis has not yet had sufficient profundity of experience to judge its own results, to institute a hierarchy of "initiates" who can be trusted to say who is and is not fit to take up the profession. There is another alternative, though the professional analyst usually regards it with horror: that is to analyse yourself. It needs care and a pair of feet planted firmly on the earth, but if due regard is paid to the rules it can be done. You can follow the age-old techniques of meditation and you will often be safer in your own hands than in those of an analyst. Of course it is risky, but in these days so many people expect a "safe" way to wisdom. The way to wisdom is, however, a great deal less "safe" than the way to making a fortune; it is perhaps the riskiest and most worthwhile thing in the world, but you should not start out on it unless you are prepared to break your neck.

FOOTNOTES;

1. Reprinted by permission of the author from Tomorrow, December 2, 1939, London, England. (return to text)


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